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Kindertransport refugees return to town that first welcomed them

    Former refugees and their families in Harwich, where they were greeted with flowers and rapturous applause
    Former refugees and their families in Harwich, where they were greeted with flowers and rapturous applause

    One by one, they disembarked, holding on to each other for support.

    Slowly, cautiously, they shuffled down the platform at Harwich Parkeston Quay International station; every step they took a victory for survival against the odds.

    Harry Heber linked arms with his sister Ruth, while Otto Deutsch, Alfred Kessler and Inga Joseph, followed behind - all of them Kindertransport refugees who had escaped Nazi persecution by the skin of their teeth.

    Seventy-seven years on from when nearly 10,000 Jewish children travelled to Britain from across eastern Europe to escape almost certain death, 25 of the surviving refugees, along with with more than 150 relatives, 300 schoolchildren, paying members of the public, and a host of communal and parliamentary dignitaries, gathered to recreate part of that life-saving journey, and pay their respects to the town that first welcomed them to the UK.

    Their hosts, Papyrus Rail UK, in partnership with Abellio Greater Anglia trains, had organised the event on July 1 not only to renew the bond between the former refugees and the people of Harwich, but also to mark the first anniversary of the death of Sir Nicholas Winton, the British stockboroker who was responsible for saving 669 Czech children from the Nazis by bringing them to the UK.

    The people here - they've been so kind

    A fanfare was sounded as the former refugees' trains arrived in Harwich. The station was decked with banners and flowers and the schoolchildren who lined each side of the platform greeted the arrivals with rapturous applause.

    "It is wonderful to come together today with you to celebrate the inspiration of these journeys," said Chris Strachan, High Steward of Harwich

    He was followed by Pam Morrison, Mayor of Harwich; Sir Erich Reich, Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) chairman; and Sir Eric Pickles, the government's special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, who all voiced their joy at being able to commemorate the Kindertransport in this way. Sir Eric urged the crowd "not to see these people as victims. They made post-war Britain a success, and we should be thanking them for staying here".

    Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush thanked Harwich residents "on behalf of the Jewish community" for their warm welcome, which "mirrors the welcome that Britain gave those Jews, the pitiful few who made it here and thrived".

    As speeches came to a close, the guests were transported in vintage-style red buses, much like those that first collected the Kinders almost eight decades ago, into the town centre.

    There, they attended a special service held in their honour at St Nicholas' Church, before watching a documentary on the Kindertransport at the Harwich Electric Palace Cinema - a haunt where many of the refugees who had stayed at the nearby Dovercourt holiday camp until they were found a home often frequented.

    For Leo Stern, 87, the day brought back memories of arriving in Harwich from Frankfurt aged 10, having fled Germany soon after Kristallnacht. He ended up living with his great-aunt in her home in Kensington.

    "I can remember very clearly getting on the train from Harwich to Liverpool Street station," he said. "I can remember being amazed by the English houses. We had never seen anything like it."

    Rolf Penzias, 94, said the day had made him "very emotional", reminding him leaving behind in Munich aged 16,where he had seen "Hitler driving down the avenue". He recalled "Our parents couldn't say goodbye to us, but we didn't mind too much because we thought we would see them again.

    "I remember the SS coming on board at the border and looting our bags."

    Eve Kushin, 91, was delighted at being able to bring her whole family with her. Her son, Simon Morrison, described the day as a "pilgrimage".

    "My mother has been a closed book for so long and never talks about it," he said. "Without the Kindertransport, none of us would be here."

    After the film, guests were free to wander around the town. For most, it was the first time they had explored Harwich; as children, they had spent most of their time at Dovercourt camp.

    Soon enough, it started to pour with rain, prompting a fresh example of the kind of hospitality the children had encountered when they arrived in 1939.

    "A local woman just invited us back to her home for tea and biscuits and to escape the rain," said Ernest Simon, 85. "The people here have been so kind. It really gave me flashbacks to arriving here at the age of eight."

    As the day drew to a close, the guests began the jouney back to London. Disembarking at Liverpool Street, still holding on to one another, they made their way past the station's memorial to the Kindertransport refugees who had arrived from Harwich so long ago.

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